DoSomething, headed by Fast Company columnist Nancy Lublin, has recognized four young social entrepreneurs with $10,000 grants–and one with a prize of $100,000. Fast Company will profile one of these enterprising youth each day this week.
Senator Robert Byrd of West Virginia, currently the oldest member of the U.S. Congress, was staring directly at 17-year-old David Burstein. It was the summer of 2007, and the recent high school grad from Westport, Connecticut, had climbed Capitol Hill to film 18 in ’08, his first documentary. He’d hoped for a rousing interview with Senator Byrd. But first, he had to answer a Bible question: “Who slew Goliath?”
Even before Burstein answered–with his own name, of course–he was pondering Byrd’s analogy. His little movie-in-the-making certainly was a David. Its Goliath: voter apathy, especially among the Facebook generation.
Fewer than 47% of America’s 18- to 24-year-olds cast ballots in the 2004 presidential election, compared with nearly two-thirds of citizens 25 and older. “It’s an embarrassing statistic,” says Burstein, sipping coffee on a rainy morning in Manhattan. The previous night, he’d accepted a $10,000 Do Something award. “We’re an involved generation, and we should care enough to vote. Young people weren’t getting that message from other young people.”
Instead, they were getting it from celebrities (see: Diddy’s “Vote or Die” campaign) and young-ish grown-ups (see: Rock the Vote). Both campaigns were aggressive, a blunt-instrument strategy that proved somewhat ineffective during the 2004 election cycle. “Young people don’t like being force-fed,” explains Burstein, who is now 20.
There are no Diddy-style decrees in 18 in ’08. Armed with a small camera crew and $10,000 from friends and family, Burstein spent two years travelling the country. He interviewed more than 60 congressmen, senators, student leaders, policymakers, and everyday people. Creating the documentary was a lesson in door-opening and networking in America. “Once we started interviewing high-profile figures–John Kerry, Richard Dreyfuss, James Carville–people started to care,” Burstein recalls. “I had to cold-call a lot of offices, but the results are pretty kickass.”
These diverse voices address a host of issues, from political cynicism to the role of new media in elections to how decisions made in Washington today will affect Burstein’s generation long-term. What ties it all together is the film’s message: “It’s not explicitly that young people should vote,” he says. “It’s that they should care.”
And they did. In the months following the November 2007 premiere of his 34-minute documentary, Burstein arranged more than 1,000 screenings, most featuring discussion panels and activist appearances. He scored endorsements from Olivia Wilde, Maggie Gyllenhaal, and Peter Sarsgaard. He met Barack Obama. His story popped up on CNN, NPR, MTV, and FOX News. And he sold 2,000 DVDs (at $15 a pop), which he estimates reached 200,000 people. All in all, his efforts generated more than $60,000 in revenue, which he funneled back to his cause.
Burstein started this project to change minds and stir action among his peers, but it has also changed him. “I used to think I wanted to run for Congress at 25,” he says. “Not anymore. This whole process has made me appreciate the value of advocacy and activism over elected politics. With the right tools, you can really shake things up.”
He points to the 2008 election as evidence. By November 4, 2008, Burstein had registered 25,000 young voters. Millions more turned up at the polls: Among 18- to 24-year-olds, participation was 48.5%–up nearly 2% from 2004, and the third-highest rate in U.S. history.
Burstein plans to use his Do Something grant to maintain and even grow that momentum. “Young people have earned political capital,” he says, before borrowing a phrase from George W. Bush. “And we intend to spend it.”